Jim, Miriam, Jessica have already tackled two of this late summer’s most hotly anticipated releases, but the one I’m most excited for is one that I’ve already read. Emma Donoghue’s Room is on the Booker longlist and recently came out in the UK, where it’s receiving some very nice reviews. My BEA galley made the rounds in this office and has also been read by many of my friends, even though it’s not released in the US till mid-September. No one could deny Donoghue’s genius.
Apparently, though, at least one person feels that the book’s quality as a work of fiction is irrelevant given that it’s inspired in part by real events. The idea for Room came from the idea that when Josef Fritzl was captured, the children his daughter had borne while his captive had never seen the world outside where they were held. The story isn’t about the Fritzl case, and it’s not (unfortunately) the only case of that nature, but Donoghue admits to getting the idea for the book because of it. Writing in the Guardian, Darragh McManus objects to using a major tragedy as inspiration for a fictional work, presuming, apparently, that it’s a cynical choice motivated by greed. McManus grants an exemption for those with personal ties (Maus is okay, because of Spiegelman’s father) and apparently reserves no such negative judgment for people writing about smaller, less “newsworthy” tragedies, which I suppose is for the best given that it’d leave novelists with precious little to write about.
I think that McManus’s conclusion in the piece really misses the mark, in that I don’t think Donoghue is doing those things he claims are the reason for his “no big tragedies” policy in his concluding paragraph. That aside, though, I’m just not convinced that it can reasonably be considered wrong to write novels based on real events. Can it be crass and cynical? Absolutely. Though I doubt that most people writing stories inspired by, say, the Holocaust are being deliberately, consciously manipulative, I’m certainly not beyond finding some of them to be schmaltzy and cheap. But for me, it doesn’t follow that they shouldn’t have done it because I happen to feel that way. I’m just not comfortable with the notions that a) anyone owns particular tragedies, b) some tragedies are more important or sacred than others, or c) we’d be well served by declining to fictionalize them. Novels are a large part of the way that we understand the past and process our feelings about it in the present. I can only imagine how much we’d lose of our understanding of life, death, and what came before us if we saved it for the history books that many never bother to read.
In this case, I’m taking the old standby: if McManus isn’t comfortable with it, he doesn’t have to read it, but that doesn’t mean Donoghue shouldn’t write it.